#04 2023

Transforming lives through evidence-based science

By Joe Sibiya, Dr Tony Swemmer, Una Manave, Ndlovu Node, NRF-SAEON, and Sentekile Hlengwa, DSI-HSRC intern

The Ndlovu Node National Science Week (NSW2023) celebrations – under the theme transforming lives through evidence-based science – consisted of school activities and public engagement workshops. 

Three weather station workshops were conducted by Rudzani Maboyi (Ndlovu Node intern) at Majeje, Ntshuxeko and Maphokwane High Schools from 31 July to 2 August. The aim of the workshops was to equip learners with skills to use data effectively to solve problems and communicate their findings.

The NSW2023 activities ended on 3 August with a public engagement workshop led by Dr Tony Swemmer, manager of the Ndlovu Node, at Welverdiend village in Mpumalanga. The workshop focused on the sustainability of fuelwood for domestic energy and a report back from SAEON (based on research conducted by Dr Swemmer, Mightyman Mashele and Oupa Mbokoda) on fuelwood harvesting rates. This was followed by a community cook-off to compare cooking food on wood versus electric stoves.

The main conclusion from Dr Swemmer’s presentation was that fuelwood harvesting at Welverdiend appears to be sustainable under current conditions. The Ndlovu team’s research at Welverdiend over the past 13 years indicates that the rangeland around the village is able to supply at the rate it is being harvested.

Results from the cooking experiment 

For cooking one large pot of pap (porridge) and one of chicken, the electric stoves used 4,5 kWh of electricity, which costs around R8.90. That is the cost that was saved by cooking on wood instead. Cooking the same meal on wood used up 13 kg of wood, so each kg of wood therefore saves around 79 cents. That means that the amount of wood being harvested from each hectare of land around Welverdiend saves about R315,00 in electricity costs per year.

As expected, the TASC cookstoves proved to be more energy efficient than the open wood fire. For the same meal as above, only 7 kg of wood was used (about half). The large cookstove (which is still in the development phase) was even more energy efficient.

The public was delighted to learn that the firewood they harvested from three tree species throughout the years was a sustainable source. Welverdiend village lies in a deep rural area with few employment opportunities, which makes it very hard for the villagers to afford electricity.


The Elwandle Node celebrated NSW2023 with environmental science engagement activities at schools and ocean conversation dialogues with rural coastal communities. 

The school activities took an outreach approach and ran parallel programmes. Some activities included water chemistry and science shows while others focused on aquatic ecology.

Spectroscopic analysis by means of a smartphone was just one of the activities conducted by learners. They downloaded the “RGB” app and used it to determine the solution concentration using visible light or spectrophotometric methods. The learners were able to see that the darker the colour, the higher the concentration. The budding scientists were also engaged in science shows which kept them interested and focused.

A presentation on the impacts and effect of eutrophication in our environment was facilitated by Shulamy Ntsoeu, Nelson Mandela University botany department research assistant, using hands-on experiments. The concept was further explained to learners using an easy-to-follow graphic chart. The adverse effects of pollution were correlated with the eutrophication demonstrations.

Yonela Mahamba, a research assistant at the Elwandle Node, introduced the learners to zooplankton by starting with simple food chains and food webs found in the terrestrial environment. She then moved on to oceanic food chains and food webs where the focus was on zooplankton and the primary consumers. Learners were given the opportunity to prepare slides and identify species using the guidelines provided. They were also able to view and identify the zooplankton under the microscope.

The importance of the ocean and the various ecosystems associated with it was demonstrated using a wave tank. This activity sparked discussion about the impacts of climate on marine ecosystems. The discussion around the importance of mangroves was based on the results observed from the wave tank experiment.

Coding and robotics

One of the most impactful activities was coding and robotics, a new skill the learners were introduced to. The young scientists were able to use block coding for the micro-bit to respond to the commands they were giving. Later, learners were able to see how other programming languages, such as JavaScript, can be used. The learners were left fascinated and showed a keen interest in the skills of the 21st century.

The community engagement was based on conversations with the Keiskamma rural coastal community about connecting with our oceans. This is a vibrant, engaging and interesting community which contains diverse age groups ranging from youths to pensioners. Most community members are employed in aquaculture (growing sea urchins, oysters, etc.). Some belong to the fishermen art group (currently embroidering a mural depicting climate change). The ocean connection conversation was facilitated by a community activist, Mr Michaal Pantsi, who played a role in mobilising the community and served as a bridge between the community and the Elwandle Node team.

Community members were divided into groups and shared their knowledge and understanding of their connections to the ocean and the ocean’s connections to them. One member from each group reported back to all participants. Dr Bizani, an Elwandle Node early-career scientist, further explained uncertainties experienced by the community and provided detailed explanations of the processes that occur within estuaries and the ocean. He also explained the link between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge. The lesson learnt from the conversations was that local and indigenous knowledge should form the base of sciences.

The discussions were wrapped up with the Lalela Ulwandle (“Listen to the Ocean”) video, which seemed to strike a chord with the people of Keiskamma.

Members of the Keiskamma rural coastal community discuss their connections to the oceans.

The learners are introduced to coding and robotics. The young scientists showed a keen interest in the skills of the 21st century.

Weather station workshops were conducted by Ndlovu Node intern Rudzani Maboyi at Majeje, Ntshuxeko and Maphokwane High Schools.

Learners participate in a graph plotting exercise.

Villagers cook pap and chicken as part of an energy efficiency study.

The amount of wood being harvested from each hectare of land around Welverdiend saves about R315,00 in electricity costs per year.

Dr Tony Swemmer, manager of the Ndlovu Node, reports back on the research team’s findings into fuelwood harvesting in Welverdiend village, Mpumalanga. The main conclusion from his presentation was that fuelwood harvesting at Welverdiend appears to be sustainable under current conditions.